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  • Obama and the Complexity of Race

    Barack Obama in PhiladelphiaNo doubt we will be studying this one for years.

    In a 38 minute speech to supporters in Philadelphia, PA, this afternoon, Barack Obama delivered the quintessential statement on race relations in America.

    He did not strike me as a giant. The cameras zoomed out slightly, Barack stood dwarfed by the two tall American flags behind him. He looked small — not the towering Obama who filled the screen at the 2004 Democratic Convention. Here, I saw man standing alone, lifting up a critical discussion on race that recently had become bogged down in careless rhetoric. I saw a man struggling with race issues so complex they have confounded this country at every turn.

    It was perhaps the most intelligent and compelling discussion on race this generation has ever heard.

    With one stroke, Obama embraced his former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright and his white grandmother, two people separated by the chasm of race, yet very similar:

    As imperfect as he may be, he has been like family to me. He strengthened my faith, officiated my wedding, and baptized my children. Not once in my conversations with him have I heard him talk about any ethnic group in derogatory terms, or treat whites with whom he interacted with anything but courtesy and respect. He contains within him the contradictions – the good and the bad – of the community that he has served diligently for so many years.

    I can no more disown him than I can disown the black community. I can no more disown him than I can my white grandmother – a woman who helped raise me, a woman who sacrificed again and again for me, a woman who loves me as much as she loves anything in this world, but a woman who once confessed her fear of black men who passed by her on the street, and who on more than one occasion has uttered racial or ethnic stereotypes that made me cringe.

    These people are a part of me. And they are a part of America, this country that I love.

    They are a part of all of our families. We all have a Rev. Wright or a grandma, aunt, uncle, cousin or parent whose racist rhetoric makes us cringe. Sometimes they go too far. Sometimes they speak a truth in a way that wouldn’t sit well with many if we captured them on video and put them on You Tube.

    Perhaps we’ve even been the Rev. Jeremiah Wright or that white grandma, caving in to our own fears and slamming those different from us in our exasperation.

    Today, something happened that was different. Barack Obama presented to us in 38 minutes the complex problem of race in America. He took the silly discourse of the past few weeks and elevated it to a sublime oratory. In doing so, he elevated us all in the process.

    No doubt some Republicans and extreme conservatives will pounce, mince the Senator’s words and serve them to their far-right audiences with cries of, “See! I told you he was black!” Obama summarized it well:

    Politicians routinely exploited fears of crime for their own electoral ends. Talk show hosts and conservative commentators built entire careers unmasking bogus claims of racism while dismissing legitimate discussions of racial injustice and inequality as mere political correctness or reverse racism.

    No doubt they’ve continued the attacks on Democrats, just as they laughed at us as Geraldine weighed in, Hillary countered, Barack reacted, and Rev. Wright sang from You Tube. But their laughter sounds from a lonely island. We argue at times as Democrats because we are at the table. We are having that discussion on race that Obama so eloquently expressed today. With Democrats, race is not about “them”, it’s about “us”. We may not get it right all the time, and, yes, sometimes we sound foolish when we fall, but the Republicans as a party are absent from the table. They’re not even in the same room. Instead, they are observing our dialog from afar. Senator McCain, respected as he is by Republicans and many Democrats, is watching from the outside. McCain’s party is not having this discussion — although they would be wise to start.

    We need them on board with us so we can all feel the complexities of these issues together. We will never advance alone.

    I’ll close with Jon Stewart, who summarized Obama’s presentation as only he can:

    “And so, at 11 o’clock on Tuesday, a prominent politician spoke to Americans about race — as if they were adults.”

    And we must continue the discussion — as adults.